Tuesday, 28 November 2017

Official stats, and how to publish them - a post with Taylor Swift

I’ve previously discussed on here how I found the portrayal of one particular set of government statistics – the Scottish Index of Multiple Deprivation – problematic. To summarise that argument – reporting, based on government press releases, called certain neighbourhoods “the poorest”, even though IMD does not measure poverty, is a relative measure, and most problematically, this added to the stigma of the neighbourhoods. I covered some of the impact of this in one of the papers I’m most proud of. So when I was contacted by the statisticians working on SIMD16 to come and have a chat with them about how they could present it in a better way, I leapt at the opportunity. When their report came out I was extremely impressed. You can download it here – it’s quite a big PDF. The things I particularly like were: 

  • The very clear statement of what SIMD measures and how it works, and can be used, on page two 
  • The case studies that demonstrate that living in a neighbourhood ranked as deprived by SIMD isn’t awful, and that it can help target resources for great things to happen 
  • The very clear “do not use SIMD for” list on page six 
  • The fact that nowhere does it say which is the “most” or “least” deprived neighbourhood. 


The team that did SIMD were nominated for a UK Civil Service Award, which they won!
I was incredibly pleased on their behalf, because they really deserve it.


via GIPHY

And, they’ve only gone and done it again – not won an award, but produced a report that is staggeringly good.


via GIPHY

It’s a report on a set of experimental statistics that have used new questions on material deprivation asked in the Scottish Household Survey to create a local poverty measure. Have a look at it here. It is soooooo good. 

Again, they’ve combined qualitative data with the presentation of the statistics to make the reality of lived experience come to life, but in a non-stigmatising way, for example on page six “Mary” describes how: 

“My kettle blew up, so I went and got a kettle off my catalogue. Cause I wouldn’t have been able to afford to just go and buy a kettle. And I didn’t want to say to anybody, ‘I can’t afford a kettle.’ Ken, people are coming in for a cup of tea and that, and ‘oh my kettle’s blew up, and I can’t afford another one’” 

An absolutely brilliant way to describe what material poverty means. 

And it gets better. There are bar charts throughout which show a percentage with confidence intervals. Rather than getting bogged down with complex descriptions of confidence intervals and statistical significance, the charts are simply labelled “The bars show measurement uncertainty. Where two bars overlap, there may not be a real difference between the two groups”. I mean!!!!!!


via GIPHY

AND AND AND it gets even better. Not only do they have CI’s clearly labelled, they then go onto interpret them for you. Each chart has a very clear description of “What the data says” and “What the data doesn’t say” to ensure that people don’t misunderstand the charts.


via GIPHY

And the data is really interesting. I just wish all official statistics documents were published this well, with this much thought put into their presentation.


via GIPHY

With thanks to the Taylor Swift Open Data Institute.

Friday, 13 October 2017

Becoming a queer scholar

A lot of my recent posts have been about my research on the experiences of LGBT+ people in homelessness services and housing. This post is about what a revelatory journey this has been for me personally. It’s also a sort of late coming-out day post.

Some of you may have noticed that my last post – about getting married – ended up being picked up by The Times and we became national news while in Hiroshima on our honeymoon. The only way I could be more out than that would probably involve riding a unicorn across the pitch during the FA cup final wearing nothing but a gold lamé thong and a rainbow feather boa.

I came out to my close friends at school when I was 15 and was out when I went to university as an undergraduate. That was when I came out to my parents, when I was 19. So I’ve not been closeted, but like many LGBT+ people I always felt awkward; ashamed even. Earlier in the year I listened to Archive on 4 by Peter Tatchell about the decriminalisation of male homosexuality. This included clips from the House of Commons debate about lowering the age of consent between men. I was 12 when that happened in 1994, so just beginning to realise my difference. The hatred and bile that was spoken snapped me right back to the bullying and overwhelming, explicit homophobia of my teenage years. So it’s very little wonder that I was not necessarily comfortable in my sexuality.

So I was definitely not a Queer academic – my identity as a gay man was not part of my research. In fact, when I did my MSc in urban and regional planning in 2005/6, Richard Florida’s work on the creative class was just coming to the fore and my now-husband suggested I might want to do my dissertation on gay places. This was also a time when Newcastle Council had actively planned for the “Pink Triangle” to boost economic development. I rejected this idea.

Why? Well predominantly because I was being quite a bit “post-gay”, in that Nate Silver “ethnically straight”. There was a gay male lifestyle projected to me, through a particular commercial gay male culture, that I did not (and still do not) feel a great affinity too. I was never going to be Stuart in Queer as Folk. I also thought the world was “post-gay” (how naïve I was) and that most discrimination against LGBT people was declining – the fight had been won.

Because of this, my research to date, has been predominantly heterosexual, and thus (I now know) heterosexist. By doing fairly “mainstream” research, I was happily advancing my career. My identity did bump into my work occasionally, such as when I had to come out to my students to point out their own homophobia, but other than that, it did not matter that much. My journey to ending up getting messy with queer theory started with a surprise finding about non-straight people from a project I was doing. Even dealing with that, working out what it meant, and deciding to publicise, left me feeling a little uncomfortable.

The other day I was reading Michael Warner’s introduction to Fear of a Queer Planet (1993) where he writes: "Queers do a kind of practical social reflection just in finding ways of being queer. (Alternatively many people invest the better parts of their lives to avoid such a self-understanding and the social reflection it would imply.)" The bit in parentheses really resonated with me – this was what I was doing.

In doing my current research project on LGBT+ housing and homelessness I’ve had to confront queerness. On the one hand, I knew I had to engage with lesbian and gay studies, and queer theory, to understand how other people have understood queer lives. Also, I have had to read transcripts from people who have experienced horrible things, including homophobic and transphobic abuse. That was a wake-up call to the amount of work we still have to do to progress equality, and also drove me on to make sure my research helped make the lives of LGBT+ people better.

And that introduction to queer theory has been immensely eye-opening, particularly the concept of heteronormativity – as I suggested when I over-analysed my own nuptials. As ever, with critical theory, as an applied researcher it does leave me in the position of: it’s great to deconstruct society, but how do we reconstruct it again? One of the main recommendations from my research – the routine collection of sexual and gender identity data – is problematic on this score. It is suggesting the imposition of essentialist criteria, created by a homophobic world, onto a queer world. However, here I side with Kath Browne that it’s better to know so we can do something (especially about things such as hate crimes) than to not know at all.

So now, I would say I am a queer scholar. The question which emerges is how much will this impact on my research going forward? Will I queer my wider research programme on broader aspects of inequality? Will I do more research with the LGBT+ community? Will I do simple things like being more out when I present my research or making sure I use pronoun introductions? I need answers to these questions because it’s something I accuse policy studies of not doing enough of in my most recent paper!


To conclude, I am now definitely out of the closet. And I'm happy to be accused of homonormativity. 

Thursday, 14 September 2017

I’m getting gay marriaged

If you’re wondering about the title, it’s what me and my husband-to-be call equal marriage. Yes, I am to be wed this coming Saturday to my partner of 11 years. It’s all getting a bit hectic and exciting in the run-up to the Big Day. Rather fortuitously, this momentous occasion in my life has coincided with me reading a lot of queer theory for my current research on LGBTQ housing and homelessness. This literature been a bit of a revelation – I’ve dived into it like a contestant on Drag Race would dive into a dressing-up box. Part of why I’m coming to this late in my academic career is related to the broader theme of this post – in my academic career to-date I’ve ignored my own queerness focusing on mainstream policy studies which has helped advance my career. This will be the topic of another post later.

The crashing together of getting gay marriaged and queer theory has been interesting and I thought I’d share a couple of insights.

Firstly, 

HETEROSEXUALS, MARRIAGE IS SO INCREDIBLY FUCKING GENDERED IT IS UNTRUE AND YOU REALLY NEED TO DO SOMETHING ABOUT THAT. 

My first awareness of this was when I first announced my engagement at work the Monday after my partner proposed. I was chairing a meeting and as an ice-breaker I asked people to share an interesting bit of non-work news when they were introducing myself. I came last and my news was my engagement (I was actually trying to think of something else to share; make of that what you will). The women in the room whooped with joy and immediately followed it up with questions about the details of the proposal and when the wedding was going to be. This took up a good five minutes; the men in the meeting looked bored and had clearly mentally moved onto item five on the agenda.

And this has basically continued ever since. We had a wait a long time before actual wedding planning got going as we’re members of the congregation of the Church of St John the Evangelist on Princes Street, part of the Scottish Episcopal Church. We were waiting for the Synod of the church to change the Canon Law to allow same-sex marriage, which they did (I heard the news via Twitter on the train home from work, and cried quite a lot). As planning got going this gendered divide about wedding discussions continued – I couldn’t briefly mention it to women without getting the Spanish Inquisition treatment, whereas men, on the whole, could not give a fuck. I started mentioning this and it was interesting how heterosexuals found this irritating too. One women explained how her husband organised her wedding and she actually got very angry at the number of people who questioned this. Another male friend explained how they equally shared tasks, and similarly was angry that people were aghast. In culture, this divide that weddings are women’s work is recreated in things like Don’t Tell the Bride.

I suppose this came as such a shock to me as the discourse around marriage has changed so much. It’s all about “partnership” and the inroads of feminism have made it less of an imposition of patriarchal power in our society. The weddings I’ve attended (oh, so many weddings…) really, I thought, reflected the input of both people in the couple; I rarely considered that it was mainly a woman’s work. What my experiences have led me to consider is that this profound gendering really demonstrates how far the institution of heterosexual marriage has to go until it becomes something more equal. This behaviour, for me, demonstrates how still marriage is something women must aspire to – hence the focus on the “big day” – and it’s something that men must be subject to – hence their lack of interest.

This also demonstrates how marriage is one of the everyday ways in which patriarchal heterosexuality is remade as the norm in our society. As a young gay man I thought I would never, ever get married, let alone married in a church (I should add, I’m still an atheist). A common criticism of equal marriage from queer activists is it is just another tool of assimilation; it is part of the way LGB people are become normalised in a neoliberal society that will accept us as normal consumers, but doesn’t really want to accept our queerness.

Going on this journey to marriage, I have ended up challenging this, particularly with the insights from Celia Kitzinger’s fantastic paper Speaking as a heterosexual. In this paper Kitzinger describes the everyday ways in talk that heterosexuality is made, and key among these is through marriage and the associated pronouns – husband, wife, and the general presumption of an opposite-gender partner. Indeed, until equal marriage, just ticking the box on a form to say “married” implied heterosexuality. To be non-heterosexual had to involve awkwardly correcting people – pointing out incorrect pronouns after you spoke about your partner was a fairly regular occurrence in my life.

Same-sex marriage upsets this entirely, and therefore, although I fully recognise where critics of homonormativity are coming from, I think they underestimate the possible radical change that will come about from widening the scope of such an incredibly heterosexual institution to us queers. For a start, it gives us a new vocabulary to play with – husband and wife. It also, profoundly, means that a wedded couple cannot be assumed to be opposite-sex. If you notice someone’s wedding ring on their finger, your thought now must be “what gender is their spouse?”. My research on housing has really opened my eyes as to how much the heterosexual family unit is subtly normalised in all manner of simple interactions. This will be eroded. Ironically, the campaigners against equal marriage are right – it might destroy, or weaken marriage; but a particular form of heterosexual marriage.

I think I note this radical possibility more intensely than other LGB people might because of the religious aspect to our marriage. I’ve had a lot of time to think about this. Also my husband-to-be was heavily involved in the SEC’s “Cascade Conversation” about equal marriage and also gave an impassioned speech about same-sex marriage at the Synod back in June (people said afterwards what a big impact it seemed to have on the audience). So it’s something that’s been considered quite a lot indeed. The opening liturgy of our ceremony on Saturday emphasises how the love in our marriage reflects and reinforces the love of God and the love of Jesus when he died for us on the cross. By getting married in church, this is stating that this love is as bountiful for everyone equally; as the priest presiding at the Cathedral in Vancouver on Pride Day said: God loves us in all the ways he made us fantastically different. This liturgy could not be more radically different from the old “honour and obey” liturgy of days of yore that was saying God made man to dominate woman.

So I’m hopeful of equal marriage. I hope it will change society and make heterosexuality be questioned a bit more as the norm, and allow people to be more easily proud of their queerness in an everyday way. I’m also hopeful for our own marriage – from what I know we’ve got good odds. The same-sex divorce rate is the same as it is for opposite-sex couples (c. 45%, yes, we’re as bad at this as you straights are) but we’ve made it past the average length of the failed marriage – 10 years – already.

And trust me, as an academic, to over-intellectualise my own sodding wedding day. 

Friday, 18 August 2017

Unsolicited cock pics and some wanted attention

I’m currently doing a research project on LGBT+ experiences of homelessness and living in the most deprived neighbourhoods in Scotland – more details here. It has been funded by the British Academy and is quite small. I was aiming for 30 participants in total. I have found it really difficult to find participants, particularly young homeless people.

I did expect this to be the case – I’m working with a subset of a small(ish) population. Estimates are that a quarter of young people between 16-25 are homeless at some point, by the broadest definition (i.e. falling out with their parents and crashing on a mate’s couch). The Albert Kennedy Trust suggest a quarter of this quarter identified as LGBT+ (although there's quite a few problems with that). People often don’t realise they’ve been homeless, and might not be out, so might not define themselves within the target population. I figured using homelessness organisations would be a good gatekeeper organisations.

I contacted quite a few homelessness organisations and still struggled. So, I thought, where do gay people hang out and I might be able to recruit them? Grindr!

For those of you who don’t know, Grindr was one of the first dating apps. I believe it was actually invented by a straight guy who was impressed with how easily his gay brother managed to hook-up in the places he visited. You set yourself up a profile – picture optional, but it can’t be rude – and fill in other details (including your “tribe” [otter, twink, bear etc. I’ll leave you to Google, but don’t blame me]; your preferred sexual practices [it seems versatile bottom is where it’s at, again Google if you don’t know], as well as age and height and other usual stuff. It’s location based, so when you open the app you get the photos of people in a grid with distance increasing as you go down. There is also a “Fresh Faces” bar at the top which lists recent joiners. You don’t swipe people away like Tinder, so it’s more like a chatting app.

I hadn’t intended to use it for participant recruitment. In fact I’ve been in a long-term relationship for 11 years, long before Grindr had been invented, so I had never actually used it. I had used the precursor website Gaydar (I can almost hear the wistful sigh from gay men of a certain age when you mention that) so I sort of knew what it was like. Anyway, I had to apply for a change to my ethics permission (form here for info) from my University’s General University Ethics Panel to use it. Before I got to this stage, Mark Holton at Plymouth University mentioned I should also check the Grindr terms and conditions. These are quite explicit on not using it for marketing, or to recruit people actively, but I wasn’t going to be doing this – I couldn’t tell if anyone was suitable for my research from their profile, so this was more lurking and seeing who approached me.

When I submitted my ethics application it was the week after Stephen Port had been convicted for murdering four young men he had lured to his flat using Grindr. This meant the main focus of the application was actually the risk assessment, particularly since it was a straight male colleague who would be doing the interviews – making sure that people recruited this way were met in public places and that I’d talked to them briefly over the phone to check everything was ok. This was on top of the usual assurances, such as making sure the researcher checked in-and-out-of interviews by text message. I also had to ensure the participants were consenting properly with full information. I was also aware there was a reputational risk to the University – I could chat people up on the app as a representative of my University. Therefore I also set out that after people messaged me on the app, I would move the discussion to email as soon as possible and provide them with full participant information then. The usual participation and consent procedures then kicked-in.

So I set up my profile, example below:


I changed it from that to asking if people lived in particular neighbourhoods in Edinburgh and Glasgow depending on what I was up to and where I was. 
And, the burning question – how successful was it? Well, quite successful actually. I got 49 contacts by the time I wrote this blog post. Not all of them were interested in my research. More of that later. It took me a week to work out Grindr etiquette. I was expecting people to message me and say “I’d like to participate in your research.” However, you only ever start a Grindr conversation with “Hi”. My initial reply to these was an immediate “I’m only on here to recruit research participants”. After a couple of times it became apparent this was extremely rude, so it became a “Hi, are you interested in participating in my research?”

Quite a few of the contacts did fit the criteria, particularly people who had experienced homelessness, which was exactly the population I was looking for. The main problem was turning these into actual interviews. I found this paper about a sexual health project that had used Grindr to find people for a project about men-who-have-sex-with-men. They noted that they got a higher participation rate if they phoned people, not emailed them. I offered to phone or email in my message to people who said they would participate. They all wanted to be emailed. I would email. And then hear nothing. I have no idea why.

And yes, I did get people who just looked at my photo (I used a professional work photo where I do look quite cute) and messaged me for the very purposes Grindr was invented for. And so far, yes, this has also involved some extremely explicit messages. As a gay man, I was sort of expecting this to happen, but if you were to recreate this method of participant recruitment and went into this naïve and oblivious it would’ve come as a bit of a shock. A handful of other messages I got would’ve raised eyebrows out of the context, but with all of these I just ignored the messages, or if someone was a tad too persistent, I politely ended the conversation explaining I was only on the app to recruit research participants. 

So, is it worth the effort to find research participants? LGBT+ people are roughly three per cent of the population, so they are pretty hard to reach. I have exhausted every single recruitment technique, apart from flyering gay bars on a Friday night, with this project and have still really struggled. Unbelievably even snowball sampling only got me two other participants (and one of them was someone’s partner and another someone’s sibling). Riffing on Michael Rosen’s book Bear Hunt I’ve been joking that “I’m going on a gay hunt, got to catch a big one”* and it really has felt like that. I think, like the public health researchers, if you were looking for people who were dating, or after no-strings-fun with a 9 inch top, for your research population, then it is definitely the place to find them. Otherwise, I think my research was a little too leftfield for your average Grindr user. They’re on it for a quick shag, or to meet the love of their life, not to discuss their housing circumstances. 

I also swiftly realised there is ethnography to be done on how people present themselves on Grindr, and the rituals of introducing oneself on the app. A quick Google Scholar search identifies that this has been done. This raises the issue of how “public” social media is (as did this blog post). An ethics panel would probably not give you permission to recreate Laud Humphries’ famous Tearoom Trade participant observation of cottaging. Yet, we could probably do an ethnography of interactions in a gay bar with no issues, comparing, say, how gay men approach each other with how straight men approach women. People do not put themselves on Grindr to appear in a research project, and if I provided any more detail about some of the profiles I’d seen, people could feasibly identify them. A defence of being overly cautious on these issues is we live in a heterosexist society. As I am finding out in this project, we know next-to-bugger-all (pun intended) about the lives of LGBT+ people in very ordinary ways. As a social scientist, I believe the only way to do this is to do research, and this involves identifying people as LGBT+ and then asking them about stuff. 

Anyway, this is all I have to say on the topic so far. This will be written up as a proper methods paper, don’t fear! Oh, and as I tweeted a while back – an idea for a novel: the protagonist is one of the random people that appear in someone else’s online dating profile, and a North-By-Northwest style mistaken identity adventure then starts.

*knowledgeable readers will get the many-levels on which that joke works. 

Tuesday, 18 July 2017

A Woman's Work

The most recent book I finished reading was Harriet Harman’s A Woman’s Work. I was interested in reading it after it had been trailed in The Guardian. I wasn’t going to “review” it much at all; I was mainly going to recommend people buy it, and give my copy to my mum. But two things made me thing again. First was the “anniversary” of when, as stand-in leader of the Labour Party in opposition, Harman advised her MPs to vote for welfare reform in 2015. This is symbolically portrayed as when the tide turned in favour of Jeremy Corbyn in the Labour leadership race. Harman became the totemic “Blairite”. Ironically, for the theme of the book, I’d argue there’s an inherent sexism in there – the presumption is Harman, as a woman cannot have her own views; she is just the stooge of the men around her. Secondly, I asked my Twitter followers if they’d like a review, and I got overwhelmed

I just want to pick up on three aspects of the book that were noteworthy to me. Firstly, life was really quite exceptionally bad for women before 1997 and it’s quite a bit better now. It’s not perfect, but thanks to Harriet Harman and her allies in the women’s movement, it’s quite a bit better. This seems to come from something that only a woman could really do – listen to women’s concerns, empathise with them, and make the practical changes needed. For example, being a naïve man I was not aware how stupidly moralistic and patriarchal the rules regarding lone parent benefit were. It was designed on the presumption women should not be in work. They should be in a relationship with a man who would earn the money for the household. Even if he was abusing her. As Secretary of State for Social Security, Harman changed that through the New Deal for Lone Parents.

Another good example this this approach, and the pragmatic challenges it led to, is the minimum wage. The men-dominated trades unions had pushed for this to be half the median wage. Harman realised that this rate would be good for men in full time work, but probably lead to thousands of low-paid women losing their jobs. She argued forcefully that such work was not “pin money” for households, but a vital part of their income, the freedom of these women, and that many of these women were lone parents who would lose their only income. She pushed this argument with the support of the trade union that represented poorly paid women workers in the textile industry the National Union of Knitwear, Footwear and Apparel Trades. The result was the Low Pay Commission. Of course, this led to her gaining enemies in the trades unions

It sort of goes without saying that Harriet Harman (or “Harperson” as she was *hilariously* referred to) has received endless sexist, misogynist abuse in her life. The reporting associated with the book’s launch focused on her being sexually harassed by a lecturer at the University of York. This was early-on, and shocking, but arguably not the worst. Taking on a men-dominated labour movement through advocating for women workers, and all-women shortlists, Harman was subject to truly shocking abuse and exclusion, as were many other women. The story of the introduction of all-women shortlists should make many men in the Labour movement utterly ashamed and should lead to public apologies at the way women were treated. Of course, it won’t.

The third reason I liked the book came to me at the end – it’s tucked away in the acknowledgements. She writes:

I’d always denounced political memoirs as male vanity projects and vowed never to write mine – so this book requires an explanation. I read the mounting pile of memoirs of the men who’d been my Cabinet colleagues. They wrote about themselves and each other but there was nothing about women.” (p.383)

She goes on:

Because I didn’t plan to write my memoirs, I never wrote a diary during my time in politics. I thoroughly disapproved of colleagues who sat in meetings writing theirs; I thought they should have been focusing on getting things done in the here and now, rather than anticipating their place in history.” (p.383)

There’s a wonderfully humility and passion here. After I read it I just thought "go Harriet!" She got into politics to change women’s lives for the better. The book is not a memoir, or a biography. It is a book about the progress the women’s movement had made over the past 50 years, from Harman’s perspective, and it is a joy to read because of that, and incredibly informative. The only weakness is she is not a brilliant writer and the prose can be clunky. I imagine it’s how I might write a book – I’m very good at reports and reasonably good at extended academic writing, but would struggle in the genre of this type of book. But it’s definitely worth reading. Being the first Mother of the House is a richly deserved accolade for Harman for all her work in her 25 years in Parliament. 

Friday, 7 July 2017

What don’t straight people like?

As I’ve blogged about before here, an emerging finding from my current research on LGBT housing and homelessness is the reticence of heterosexual-identifying staff in organisations to ask service users their sexual identity. In 20 days’ time, it will be the 50th anniversary of the decriminalisation of sex between two men, in private, in England and Wales when the Sexual Offences Act 1967 received royal assent. The Hansard record of the debates relating to the parliamentary bill given an interesting, if alarming, insight into social attitudes at the time.

This has led to quite a bit of focus on changing social attitudes to same-sex relationships. For example, the National Centre for Social Research tweeted this graph from the British Social Attitudes Survey demonstrating how we’ve become more accepting of same-sex relationships.


Yet my lived experience, and also my research findings suggest something different – an acceptance, but a remaining discomfort. I’ve got to think through this because one of the ways I was thinking of “queer-ying” policy, and to hit home my point that it should be normal to ask people their sexual identity, was to do a cartoon gently mocking the assumption that asking people if they are straight, gay or bisexual, is asking a question about what they get up to between the sheets (or anywhere else they may choose to have sex). I still think this will work, but I’ve realised I’ve got to do some more work on it.

As part of making sense of my data from my project I’m reading into queer theory. I’m not an expert – in a disciplinary sense, I live in policy studies – so I’ve been going to “readers”. It’s interesting for me with my historians perspective on as a lot of the texts in them are quite dated and pre-exist much of the legislative progress of the last decade in the UK and elsewhere. Here, I want to draw on the excerpt from Ahmed in the Routledge Queer Studies Reader, ‘Queer Feelings’. She focuses on the discomfort generated by being “queer”, or non-normative, and the way this rubs up against a heteronormative society. I read a lot of the chapter thinking of Panti Bliss’ famous speech on oppression.

It has also got me thinking a bit more about the discomfort people say they would feel if they had to ask people their sexuality. As I wrote previously, I do empathise with this discomfort a lot – I would probably feel a little bit apprehensive. Reading Ahmed though has got me focusing on what exactly is discomforting? Arguably, marriage equality has garnered such support because it is assimilationist – it is gay people doing what straight people do, pairing up, settling down, and having sex just with one another.

So is it the sex that a heteronormative society finds so discomfiting? I did a little experiment on this myself because I noticed that my tweets regarding LGBT issues got very little attention. Searching for a GIF once I found one that was from a gay porn film. It didn’t take much to find quite a few others on the Twitter GIF search. So I posted a hard core gay porn GIF, the obliquely showed a sexual act between two men, every day for a week. I got two likes, and one of them was for a GIF that was a passionate kiss. This suggested, to me, at least an ambivalence towards sexual acts between men.


Particularly in the UK we find all sex discomfiting. However, we are getting better at having open discussions about heterosexual sex – just not necessarily the right discussions with the right people. But we’re happy to accept lesbian and gay couples, and indeed celebrate them through marriage, yet when we consider them actually having sex, I suspect we’ve got an awful lot further to go on social attitudes. 

Wednesday, 5 July 2017

Habermas

I read a 500-page biography of Jürgen Habermas so you don't have to. Actually, it's quite a good read, better than I feared. There were times when I actually couldn't put it down, and I'm not a fan of biographies generally. I was read this tome to review for Local Government Studies. Given the book was so long, I asked the book reviews editor to give me the equivalent of two reviews, but he didn't think it was of sufficient interest to the readers of LGS to warrant the full version so it got brutally edited down to 800 words. I don't mind, this was what we agreed when I went in to write it. The shorter version will be published soon, and in the mean time, you can read the 1,600-word version. 

Habermas: A Biography
Stefan Müller-Doohm (tr. Daniel Steuer)
Polity Press (Cambridge)
Hardback: 978-0-7456-8906-7
£9.99

As an undergraduate studying history, a Professor was attempting to explain Habermas’ thesis in The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere in a lecture I was attending. They described how, like all German intellectuals, Habermas “dived in deeper, and came out muddier”. For many in the English-speaking academic world, this is one caricature they hold; for others Habermas is seen as an irrelevance, with his utopian vision of uncorrupted discourse being empirically disproved by a “post-truth” world of discursive conflict. Yet, when we look at the emphasis put on deliberation in governance reforms (the latest trend being co-production) or the campaigns for rational discourse in society to counter “fake news”, arguably, we are seeing the enduring impact of Habermas’ philosophical and political project, and his ever greater relevance in the present day.

Stefan Müller-Doohm’s biography of Habermas, now translated into English, gives an incredibly rich insight into Habermas’ intellectual project, but more importantly the personal drive behind it. Born in 1929, and growing up in the west German town of Gummersbach, Habermas’ cleft palate marked him out as different all his life. From 1933 this difference became of greater importance as it marked Habermas as a “degenerate” within the Nazi regime. However, like many of his generation, he was a member of the Hitler Youth, and trained as a first-aider and is photographed in marching to the frontline in August 1944 in the book.

What is very apparent from this biography is the deep impact these early experiences had on Habermas for his entire life. From the mid-1950s, Habermas started down the road to becoming the public intellectual he is widely known as within continental Europe. Writing with the milieu of the new democracy of the Bundesrepublik, he was committed to creating a critical, public discourse. This was within a country that had a very fragile democracy, of the sort even now we can barely imagine – where de-Nazification had been partial so as to leave some functioning bureaucracy; any alignment with Marxist doctrines ran the risk of individuals being accused of being sympathisers with the Demokratische Republik. This was a country where it was not until 1969 that Willy Brandt became the Social Democratic Chancellor, and the CDU/CSU dominance seemingly teetered on the brink of become authoritarian.

With this background illuminated by Müller-Doohm, the drive behind Habermas’ intellectual project become apparent. In sum, it is the recognition that democracy is fragile, historically contingent, and it needs explaining by social science. What is more, democracy also needs supporting, pragmatically and theoretically. This drive to use critical theory to embed a deep democracy that delivers equality, was in a context where Habermas had to negotiate between conservative university authorities and the warring factions that had emerged from the Frankfurt School. It is these moments, where the ideals of critical theory, or of contemporary left thought, bang up against the reality of navigating the contradictions of liberal capitalism, that are the most interesting of the book, and produce some page-turning sections.

In this review, I want to mention two, both occurring around the same time in that period of revolutionary fervour 1968. A thread running through the book is Habermas’ close collaboration with the publisher Suhrkamp and close friendship with Siegfried Unseld, owner and director, who turned it into an intellectual powerhouse in post-war West Germany. This included Habermas’ role in editing the Edition Suhrkamp book series. In a closely described section, Müller-Doohm explains how Unseld’s editorial staff, inspired by wider revolutionary fervour, presented an editorial charter to Unseld asking for the publisher to be “socialized” (p.151). Alarmed and supportive of Unseld, Habermas travelled to Frankfurt in October 1968 and, as described by Unseld:
using all his theoretical armour, presented the thesis that it would be nonsensical if a publishing house that brought out the right kind of progressive literature…was exposed to an experiment that would put the publisher’s present impact at risk.” (p.152)
The irony of one of the greatest critical thinkers of modern Europe negotiating against workers’ rights, in favour of a capitalism that could afford to publish his works and make them widely read across Germany, and the world, is somewhat pointed.

The second incident which highlights Habermas’ ambiguous position, is his response to student rebellions at this time. In the mid-1960s Habermas was at the heart of protests against the CDU-CSU-led Grand Coalition and its authoritarian tendencies. Along with protests against the Vietnam War, Habermas became embroiled in student demonstrations. It is clear Habermas’ was deeply committed to reform of higher education in West Germany. One of his earliest pieces of research had been on higher education students, considering the potential of them to drive social change. Habermas’ regularly spoke at student occupations (although it seems he was a little less keen when it was his own university being occupied). In 1969 Habermas’ collected writings on university reform were published as Protestbewegung und Hochschulreform (Protest Movement and University Reform).

However, in June 1967 the students’ union of the Freie Universität in Berlin protested against a state visit by the Shah of Persia. In the resulting brutal police break-up of the protest, a 26-year-old student Benno Ohnesorg was shot and killed. As student protests developed, Habermas supported the protests “but at the same time he also warned against an activism at any cost and against the danger of ‘provoking a transformation of the indirect violence of institutions into manifest violence.’” (p.141). Habermas’ was heavily criticised by the leader of the students’ movement Rudi Durschke, and in-turn, he denounced their ideology as “left-wing fascism”. This led to the tide to turn against Habermas, with student groups now distancing themselves from him.

These stories from formative years for Habermas, going onto Habermas’ period as director of the Max Planck Institute for the Study of the Scientific-Technical World in Starnberg, are the most interesting. It was at the Max Planck institute where Habermas wrote the Theory of Communicative Action and Müller-Doohm does a sterling job summarising the main thesis across a few pages. 

From the period of the late 1970s, the biography, unfortunately, becomes a little formulaic and something of a hagiography. Endless visiting professorships, prizes and the spreading importance of Habermas’ thought through the world are narrated. On reflection this could just be the result of where Habermas’ career had got to – this is the life of a global scholar. It could also be a result of a more careful curation of his public profile by Habermas, as his fame grew.

Why should a reader of Local Government Studies be interested in this (enormous) book? Participatory initiatives have now become a norm in governing practices at a local level. In manuals of good governance, countries are exalted to bring citizens into decision-making processes to make them better. In our scholarship we can focus on the policy initiatives that led to such participation institutions – for example, the Skeffington Report into participation in the planning in the United Kingdom. It is easy for us to get swept up in a critique of such initiatives as utterly failing to meet the utopian goals they set themselves, for example, using a Foucauldian critique to portray citizens as dupes doing what government wants them to do.

Yet very few of us would now question that such initiatives should exist, and that good quality discourse is essential to a lively democracy. Our revulsion to the use of “fake news” and ambiguity in what we count as the “truth” belies a deeper tradition from the enlightenment to seek the truth. Underlying these concerns is Habermas’ concept of a rational discourse among free and equal actors. In the English-speaking context, this remains implicit – we don’t get to read Habermas’ numerous contributions to Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung and De Welt that make him a very public scholar in Germany.

As already touched upon, it is clear from this biography that Habermas himself could not, necessarily, always live up to his own ideals. Another theme, is that throughout his career Habermas has benefited from many structural privileges that his critics, particularly Iris Marion Young, have suggested mean that his ideal speech situation can never come to pass. Put simply, the only woman who really has a role in this book is his wife Ute Wesselhöft, and then as an academic spouse, rather than a person in her own right. All the other key characters in Habermas’ life were men. His career was developing during a period when structural inequalities were much more likely to hold-back women and minority groups, so this is partly understandable as a product of the time. However, in the positions of authority he has had, such as founding the Max Planck institute, Habermas seems to have done little in terms of practical action, as his theoretical position would suggest he should, to address such structural issues. One would hope as a leading critical thinker Habermas was aware of such issues, but this is never apparent from the book.


To conclude, this book is an astounding overview of the life, and intellectual development, of one of Europe’s greatest thinkers, and one who is neglected in English-speaking social science. Müller-Doohm’s archival research is awe-inspiring. Reading the book from the perspective of the UK, with dominance of the tabloid media; a referendum that was recently won on a blatant untruth (the pledge Brexit would lead to £350 million for the NHS); where we are “tired of experts”, it is easy to scoff at Habermas’ ideal speech situation. What becomes clear from the book though, is that Germany does seem to have this – through the scholarly debates on the pages of the leading newspapers, major issues of the day are discussed. The continuing legacy for all of us from Habermas’ work is that we must keep our fragile democracies, at all levels, alive with discourse.